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Art of team building: Why Carson Wentz looms so large

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April 20, 2016.

The Cleveland Browns execute a blockbuster trade that sends the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to Philadelphia in exchange for a bushel of selections, including the Eagles' first-rounder in 2017.

The Eagles use the pick to acquire Carson Wentz, the huge-framed quarterback out of North Dakota State whom NFL Network's Mike Mayock compares to both Andrew Luck and Cam Newton.

144 days later.

Wentz, in his first NFL start, engineers five scoring drives, with a pair of pretty touchdown passes, in an opening-day 29-10 win over the Browns.

Cleveland, meanwhile, loses both starting quarterback Robert Griffin III and veteran arm Josh McCown to non-throwing shoulder injuries over the first two weeks of the season, forcing the Browns to turn to untested rookie Cody Kessler, a USC product chosen just two picks after New England's Jacoby Brissett and a full round before Dallas nabbed the compelling Dak Prescott.

Wentz goes on to deliver another jaw-dropping performance in a 29-14 rout of the Bears before slamming the Steelers 34-3 in a Week 3 tilt that has NFL types buzzing about the 3-0 Eagles' rookie quarterback -- a guy offensive coordinator Frank Reich has compared to, again, Andrew Luck and tough-as-nails Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. Meanwhile, the Browns suffer a crushing overtime loss in Miami to fall to 0-3.

Two front offices and two franchises chasing separate destinies on the heels of a Week 1 encounter that raised plenty of questions about the losing team, especially after the Browns publicly talked about the brittle Griffin as a long-term answer, while hinting they didn't see Wentz as a top-20 passer.

Why did the Browns, chained to their decades-long search for a franchise quarterback, pass up the chance to draft a 6-foot-5, 237-pound, cannon-armed signal caller whom scouts raved about for his Type A personality and Brady/Manning-esque obsession with football?

The many roads of team-building

Like 32 children let loose on the schoolyard, each of the NFL's franchises come packed with unique personalities, strengths, obstacles and vulnerabilities. Their paths to maturity and glory are disparate; their fortunes -- like any of us -- are knit together by a tangled combination of hard work, disposition, lessons learned, the weight of personal choices and a dash of luck (or a lack thereof).

Is it really so surprising that only a handful of organizations at any given time feel like viable title contenders?

"I think the story actually starts with the number of [contending] teams," former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner told me. "I always used this phrase when I was working for an owner: The difference between the really good GMs are the ones who understand there's a difference between picking good players and building a team. And the ones that think of ... the hiring or the work of the GM as just getting somebody who's a good evaluator -- I'm not sure it was ever true, but now that you've got the complexity of the cap and trades and coaches and all those things, which seem to have such a clear effect on winning ... I think we're seeing some transformation at GM, at least from a thought process, where some people are starting to understand that the qualifications of the job are not simply being a great talent evaluator."

The league's best teams come packed with a clear identity, while sticking to a guiding philosophy. We aren't stunned to see a Bill Belichick-led New England squad thrive without Tom Brady because the Patriots have stuck to their team-building beliefs -- no matter the environmental challenges -- since the turn of the century.

By contrast, perennial losers are often the victims of ever-churning coaching staffs and scouting departments. When you change your schemes -- and the kind of players they require -- every two seasons, you don't stand a chance for regular success against the few NFL elites who know exactly what they are from game to game and season to season.

"In my experiences, most teams don't stop to do that work," Banner said. "They just kind of start working together. I'll use Philly as an example. We were all on the same page in that we needed to get a great quarterback and we wanted to dominate both lines of scrimmage and then build from there. We weren't done after that, but that was our No. 1 priority. We were all very focused on getting players that were smart, players that were driven to be great, players that cared as much about the team as individual success.

"We had a list of things, so that when we're in a draft meeting and you get two guys that we have good grades on, but one is very smart and has a very clear character -- and the other is not quite as smart and maybe has some character blemishes -- things can happen where you have a debate about that. They're going to get resolved and you pick somebody, but in the meantime, every one of those little debates kind of chips away at the relationship."

Banner believes that signs of progress should materialize sooner than later. Even if that doesn't mean consistent wins right away, an organization that rides with a unified team-building mantra should see draft-pick and free-agent success.

"Listen, most teams that are good are conspicuously proven by Year 2 and are actually good by Year 3," Banner said. "You go back, you'll see that's the history. ... For that to happen, you have to be hitting on a lot of draft picks and you have to get a quarterback in the first couple years."

The signal-caller question

What made Cleveland's choice to pass on Wentz so fascinating was that many scouts league-wide would see him as the perfect answer for a franchise that hasn't seen good quarterback play since Bernie Kosar was throwing sidearm strikes during the Reagan White House.

As executive vice president of the Eagles back in '99, Banner didn't wait around to draft a quarterback, spending the second overall pick on Donovan McNabb, a move that famously led to the Syracuse quarterback being booed by Eagles fans as he walked onto the draft stage in New York.

"Remember, people wanted us to pick Ricky Williams, they wanted us to pick Edgerrin James, all these options, but we were like, 'No way in hell. If we think one of these quarterbacks is very good, we're picking him,' " Banner explained. "We did the evaluation and thought Donovan was the answer. There was no discussion left for us to have."

McNabb checked all the boxes of the team-building guidelines Banner, coach Andy Reid and owner Jeffrey Lurie desired to follow. So they stuck to their guns -- and it didn't take long for the group to be rewarded.

"We picked Donovan McNabb [in 1999] and we won five games," Banner recalled. "The next year, Donovan's in his second year, although he played very little in the first year, but we won 11 games and went to the second round of the playoffs. By his third year, we went to the [NFC] Championship Game. Now, you got to be lucky. You can have a high pick and there's no quarterback there. We were lucky that we had the second pick and we actually got the evaluation right, because most people didn't have Donovan that high and there were five quarterbacks picked in the top 12 of that draft."

Banner acknowledged that teams can be built in multiple ways, but he didn't hesitate when asked if getting your franchise passer in place is ultra-important to seeing results.

"My answer is yes, but if you believe in the cliché that 'actions speak louder than words,' there are a number of teams up there that don't seem to believe it to that extent," Banner said. "... We see teams that think you can play great defense, run the ball and win a Super Bowl. That's a true statement, but it's far less likely to build a team and do it that way than it is to build a team that's more geared around the great quarterback, a passing game with a supportive running game, and a good defense."

Today's Eagles regime -- still under the steady leadership of Lurie -- clearly agrees. The bounty of picks Philly traded for the right to grab Wentz feels almost meaningless against the information that an exciting young quarterback has been unearthed.

The Browns were seen by many in April as the winner of that swap, largely because Wentz initially was talked about as a redshirt arm who would take the year off in a crowded quarterback room led by Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. Instead, the Eagles turned Bradford into a first-round pick of their own by shipping him to the Vikings in September after Minnesota lost Teddy Bridgewater to injury.

"You can see what the Eagles just did. Everybody was so critical," Banner said of the trade that landed Wentz. "But it was a one-year situation where they were over-invested in quarterbacks, while setting up their long-term situation where hopefully, from their evaluation perspective, they had a difference-making quarterback. On the other hand, we see teams that could pick quarterbacks and they don't. Or they misevaluate quarterbacks and they pick the wrong ones. Or they think they can find somebody in the third or fourth round, so they use their first-round pick on something else. Can you win that way? Yes. Is it the much, much harder path to winning? I think that's irrefutable.

"It doesn't mean if you build a team with a great defense and primary running game around an OK quarterback that you can't win a Super Bowl. It just means that you're swimming upstream. You're playing against the odds."

New days down South

Once laughed about as football's worst division, the AFC South now features a Texans team centered around young quarterback Brock Osweiler alongside a Colts club struggling to get back to the playoffs with Andrew Luck, the division's top passer. The South also includes two teams in the Jaguars and Titans who, without question, are building around the quarterback position.

First-year Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson cut his teeth for years under Belichick in New England before spending time in Tampa Bay under GM Jason Licht, who changed everything we feel about the Bucs when he made quarterback Jameis Winston the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft.

The second pick that year, intriguing passer Marcus Mariota, is now the player Robinson plans to construct his roster around in Nashville.

"The team-building process is never easy. There are always challenges that arise," Robinson said, when asked if finding a quarterback makes life simpler. "But, I mean, having an important position in place, it allows you to rest a little easier knowing that you can complement and build around that position."

Despite their 1-2 record and some obvious holes on both sides of the ball, there's evidence that Tennessee harbors a shared philosophy and identity after years of missed draft picks and low-octane free-agent acquisitions under previous, floating regimes.

What's the difference?

"Pixie dust," Robinson joked. "No, but when I interviewed for the job here, I talked with [controlling owner] Amy [Adams Strunk], [ownership partner] Kenneth [Adams] and Steve Underwood, our president, about a collaborative effort. A unified vision with the general manager, the head coach and the owner about what we want to be about. And we've stuck to that plan. We're in lockstep with the types of players we want to bring in here. We've tried to strategically get in position to acquire those players and make good, sound football business decisions that bolster the team."

Robinson talked about the players he seeks as "tough, dependable, team-first."

If those traits feel obvious, we can also point to the hundreds of draft busts, character issues and fragile-but-talented skill-position players dotting the NFL landscape. Besides, Robinson learned his trade from the most consistent franchise of the 21st century.

"I was in New England for 12 years," Robinson said. "Not that I know all the true secrets, but I was part of a process and scouting evaluation and team-building [plan] there, so I think my background is definitely steeped in the New England model -- but with my personality and some of my own thoughts and beliefs."

Tennessee's active offseason was highlighted by trading the No. 1 overall pick to the Rams for Los Angeles' first-round pick, two second-rounders and a third pick in 2016 -- plus the Rams' first- and third-round picks in 2017. The club also netted running back DeMarco Murray in an offseason trade to serve as the centerpiece of coach Mike Mularkey's smashmouth approach.

"I would say that everybody that we have brought in here from the spring -- I think there's 22, 23 new players on this roster," Robinson said, "they've all bought into the style and type of football team we want to be."

People want that to happen right away, but Belichick himself needed time to develop both teams he's headed at the NFL level. His Browns in the early 1990s went 6-10, 7-9 and 7-9 before making the playoffs, while the 2000 Patriots, an 8-8 team the year before he arrived, suffered through an ugly 5-11 campaign before winning the Super Bowl the following season.

Robinson, who took over one of the worst rosters in football, puts a premium on knowing up front that everyone from ownership on down is married to a unified plan.

"Paramount. It's paramount. It's probably the most important thing for the success of a football team, to have that shared vision," Robinson said. "Obviously, you've got to have players that can go out and make the plays, but the vision for the football team and acquiring those players and directing those players and how we're going to play offensively, defensively and the kicking game -- it's gotta be a shared vision."

Shared visions, though, don't always produce results in a hurry.

Tennessee's archrival in the AFC South, the Jacksonville Jaguars, are invariably on the same page as an organization, but find themselves in a hole at 0-3 after being touted as a playoff hopeful throughout the offseason.

A floating vessel of a franchise just a few years ago, Jacksonville's roster is packed with high draft selections hand-picked by general manager David Caldwell, who rides today with coach Gus Bradley into Year 4 of a much-publicized team-building process drawing mixed reviews.

The Jaguars are undoubtedly a more talented squad than what Caldwell inherited -- back then, a cap-crippled operation desperately in need of a "Bar Rescue"-esque overhaul. With patient owner Shad Khan at the helm, Caldwell and Bradley have been given an unusually long leash to build the roster.

Khan's patience has been valid because of the charred husk of a lineup he inherited. Maybe even still, as Jacksonville's young core of defenders -- Dante Fowler Jr., Myles Jack, Telvin Smith, Tashaun Gipson, Malik Jackson and Jalen Ramsey -- have played together for a whopping 180 minutes as a group.

Critics don't want to hear about patience, though, after watching the Jaguars tumble on offense this season behind quarterback Blake Bortles and give up a hill of points in a 38-14 loss to the Chargers in Week 2 before falling at home against the Ravens. August's heady optimism has been replaced by questions about what might happen in Jacksonville if Bradley doesn't improve upon his 12-39 record with Caldwell's players.

As it goes, three games in the NFL can change everything.

"You want it to happen a lot quicker, but you have to understand the process in place," an AFC executive said of the conference's stable of young, rebuilding teams. "You want to look back in four or five years and say, 'You know what -- we did some good things, we did some bad things, but we like the direction it's going in.' Or, in five years you say, 'We missed on this guy, we missed on that guy.' ... You have to let your guys develop. So often, a rookie is pigeonholed with what he did his [first] year. ... But you have to let these guys develop at their own pace, and when you do it collectively as a young team, you're going to go through some adversity."

Cleveland's controversial course

This season is off to a rough start for the Browns. They've been battered by injuries and field one of the league's youngest rosters, with all of the team's league-high 14 draft picks making the original 53-man lineup.

They have been lashed in the press for passing on Wentz, but Banner -- a former team employee who parted ways with the club in 2014 -- actually buys into much of what executive VP Sashi Brown and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta are doing in Cleveland.

"My actions say that I agree philosophically with what they're doing," Banner said, digging into his own tenure with the Browns. "I left the 10 draft picks -- including four very high ones, two in the first round -- and almost $60 million at the peak in cap room. Made some tough decisions the first year [in 2013]. So philosophically, this is the right way to turn around a team. But now you have to get the right evaluations, you have to do things in the right order, you have to manage the cap properly. You have to decide, Do we really need to be at zero or can we be at 20 percent built? They obviously made the decision to tear down the whole house."

The AFC executive I spoke with also saw validity in Cleveland's process, but asked the same question as Banner: Was it necessary to part with all the veterans who walked out the door this past offseason?

"Every situation is different, but make no mistake about it: They let some good football players out of the building," said the AFC exec. "I understand what they're trying to do, but I don't know if they had to do it that way. They had a good salary-cap situation. They had [veterans]. You put together two good draft classes with that core of guys, you'd really be a pretty solid team."

Said Banner: "As for rebuilding a team, the idea of accumulating draft picks and the idea of maximizing your future cap room are absolutely the very thing to do. But now you use 14 picks and you passed on a quarterback, so now you got to sit back honestly: How many of those 14 picks are going to be quality starters? Are we going to get a good quality starting quarterback for the next decade?"

What has Browns fans concerned is that both Griffin (a project, at best) and Rams rookie Jared Goff (currently floating on the bench in Southern California) were seen in Cleveland as acceptable alternatives to Wentz.

"Not every first or second pick that's a quarterback makes it. But you're better off taking the chance that a pick at one, two, three [or] four is going to make it over a pick at 25 or 75," Banner said of drafting a passer. "So by doing it in the back order, where you build the team first and get the quarterback second, you've also made it really hard."

It's far too early to lay final judgment on the Browns, who deserve credit for playing with newfound fire under coach Hue Jackson and figure to be in good position to grab their franchise quarterback next offseason. Wentz blooming into the next version of Ben Roethlisberger -- whom Cleveland passed on in 2004 -- makes for troubling optics today, but the Browns, like so many clubs hoping to change their fortunes, won't get there through panic.

"We've found a very good head coach," Sashi Brown said earlier this month, per The Plain Dealer. "I've already felt the change in the culture. He's uniquely qualified because he knows how to get the most out of his players. That's critical when you have so many young players."

Said Brown of Jackson: "We understand it's going to be difficult. We're going to be in there with him."

Where Cleveland winds up will make for a fascinating story -- if it works.

"This is an extremely important area and hardly talked about in the media," Banner said of the team-building process. "And as you evaluate teams and see success or failure, the roots of how they were put together from the coach and the general manager on down, and the philosophies, and the success rate -- I call it batting-average rate on things like draft picks -- are all very measurable. But people look at teams that are good and bad and they don't talk about this enough.

"I think back to what Bill Walsh said when someone asked how he had such success over a long period of time when the league is actually structured for teams to go up and down. And he said something like, 'I only consider six to eight teams in the league smart enough to be competition.' "

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